Monday, June 26, 2006


Ethics and Ethos: the Fox in the Henhouse

First, simple definitions:

Ethics: "right and wrong"

Ethos: "the way things are done"

Second, an example:

A recently televised discussion centered on the "ethics" of abandoning an injured colleague to die on the expedition to the top of a mountain. The choice was to abandon the expedition and to rescue the injured one, or to abandon the injured one to complete the task. The climbers said that abandoning the injured party was "the right thing to do", as all involved knew the risks, and achieving the goal was more important than anything else. The show host questioned the ethics or morality of such a decision.

My answer:

There is no question here. The only ethical thing to do was to save the life. If the quest was to climb the mountain to save MANY lives, or for some greater good, then the argument could be made that the climbers could choose to sacrifice the one for the many. To sacrifice a life for a goal of having "conquered the mountain" is unethical. It IS however, an acceptable formulation of the ETHOS of the climber. The VALUE to the climbers to achieve the goal at all cost, even life, may have been paramount. There may even have been an agreement or a contract between the climbers to abandon injured climbers to achieve the goal. This is the ETHOS of the climbers. The accepted "way things are done" is distinct from the rightness or wrongness of the act. The ethos or the tradition or the culture of the group may contradict any ethics. Ethics is about "right and wrong" in a greater sense, one that transcends ethos.

Now, the topic of the day:

Congressional Ethics

The headline in the newspaper today and the topic on talk radio was about state and federal elected officials, our congressmen, rallying to promote "ethics laws" to govern their own behavior.

I can see congress passing legislation to authorize payments for building roads, but not on how to build the roads, or for payments for medical care, but not on what medical care or how the medical care shall be done (and that is another discussion). I can see politicians passing legislation mandating ethical behavior, as if such were necessary, but they are clearly unqualified to delineate, teach, or monitor the ethics of their own behavior. Their ETHOS is far too twisted to allow them a clear vision of ETHICS.

It is pathetic that our "leaders" should need to legislate that they be ethical. Since they, and essentially ALL politicians, have proven their collective propensity to ignore ethics and to perpetuate the corrupt ethos of government, it might be of value to have ETHICISTS clarify for the elected-ignorant specifically WHAT IS ETHICAL. It might, then, be of value to have outside specialists monitor the ethics of the politicos.

Two side notes:

(1) I am fairly sure that any and all politicians will point fingers at physicians and question our ethics. The AMA is guilty of changing its "code of ethics" to suit its financial and political advantage, but that is understandable, as it is a POLITICAL organization, and subject to the ethos of organizations and politics.

The ethos of medicine, however, is intrinsically an ethical ethos. We err and are tainted, but our ethos is ethical. We struggle and grapple with ethics every moment of every day.

(2) Law is not intrinsically ethical. Law codifies the ethos, but not the ethics of the group. I am not sure that it is possible to legislate ethics. Ethics arises from philosophy and can be studied and taught and turned into practice. I am not sure if it is possible to mandate ethics. Especially if the ethos is unethical.

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